Helping a Loved One with Major Depression
What to do -- and not do -- to help a loved one before and during depression treatment.
It's hard to watch a loved one struggle with major depression, and even tougher when your attempts to help are pushed away. Unfortunately, people with depression often pull away from friends and family -- isolating or withdrawing due to depression symptoms. Don't give up. Your depressed loved one needs you most before treatment starts.
Jon Allen, PhD, senior staff psychologist at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, recalls, "I once said in a patient group, 'It's difficult but not impossible to recover from depression.' And a patient said, 'I can tell you one thing, Doc: It was impossible to recover by myself.'"
Before Depression Treatment
The first step to helping your depressed loved one is making that initial connection. Shoshana Bennett, PhD, a clinical psychologist, suggests broaching the subject of depression symptoms this way: "I notice you haven't really been yourself lately. I care about you, and I want to know if I can be of help. What's going on?"
"The depressed individual might know something is wrong but be ashamed about it," Dr. Bennett says. "Or the person might be in denial." In either case, your depressed loved one might not believe things will get better. You might need to prod them to seek professional diagnosis and treatment for depression. Offer specific types of help, such as getting the name of a therapist, making a doctor or therapy appointment, or driving your loved one to a doctor visit. "Don't just bring it up once," Bennett says. "Keep checking in about how it's going. Typically, the depressed individual will be very thankful that you care enough to do this, even if he or she doesn't show it at first."
During Depression Treatment and Recovery
Once your loved one starts depression treatment, he or she still needs your support. To discourage social isolation and feelings of loneliness or hopelessness, suggest activities you can do together, such as sharing a meal, driving to the store, or taking a short walk. Also, let your loved one help you. Bennett suggests that asking the depressed person for help with a household chore, such as setting the table, drying the dishes, or weeding the garden. This takes some of the burden off you as a depression caregiver, and benefits the person with depression. "Self-worth plummets when someone is depressed," Bennett says. Feeling like the one who always needs help reinforces a negative self-image. Being the helper gives your depressed loved one a boost of self-esteem.
Also, avoid using the J word -- "just" -- which can minimize what your depressed loved one is going through. Don't tell the depressed person to "just think positively," "just quit moping," or "just go out and have some fun," Dr. Allen says. "The J word reflects wishful thinking." It also implies there's a simple solution to major depression when, in fact, there's not. Overcoming depression is never easy, but it can be a lot less daunting with your loving support.